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THC remains banned in-competition by doping rules as laws, attitudes change

Richardson's positive test puts THC in spotlight
OLY-ATH-Richardson-Doping
Posted at 3:55 PM, Jul 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-04 11:16:44-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The active ingredient in marijuana, THC, remains on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s in-competition banned substance list — and it’s going to cost U.S. women’s 100-meter champion Sha’Carri Richardson a shot at winning an individual Olympic gold.

Richardson, 21, was suspended for 30 days after testing positive for THC at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials last month in Eugene, Oregon. Her suspension ends July 27.

Under revised 2021 Code and Standards, which were approved in November 2020 and went into effect on Jan. 1, 2021, THC is classified as a Substance of Abuse because it is “frequently abused in society outside of the context of sport.”

As such, “all natural and synthetic cannabinoids are prohibited" by the World Anti-Doping Code.

It is no longer treated as a performance-enhancing drug, use of which would be banned year-round, but athletes are restricted from actively using marijuana before and during competition windows.

Recreational use outside of competition isn’t prohibited, but lingering traces can trigger a positive test and result in an athlete’s disqualification, which happened to Richardson at the Olympic Trials.

Cocaine, heroin and ecstasy also are listed as Substances of Abuse on WADA’s prohibited list.

The International Olympic Committee, which oversees and runs the Olympic Games, has adopted WADA’s Code and Standards and requires all national Olympic sanctioning bodies, including the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, to do the same in order to compete.

Cannabidiol, or CBD oil, is not a banned substance, but WADA warns that different CBD products contain different concentrations of THC, so “the use of any CBD product is at the athlete’s own risk.”

Richardson, who admitted to smoking marijuana as a way to cope with her mother’s death, had the fastest time in qualifying (10.84 seconds) and during the semifinals (10.64, wind-aided) at the U.S. Olympic Trials.

She pulled away from the field in the second half of the final, winning in 10.86 to make her first Olympic team.

US Track Trials Athletics
Sha'Carri Richardson waves after winning the women's 100-meter run at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials Saturday, June 19, 2021, in Eugene, Oregon.

During a race in April, Richardson won in 10.72, which is the fastest non-wind-aided time in the world so far in 2021.

She was expected to challenge Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce for the gold medal. Fraser-Pryce was the Olympic champion in 2008 and 2012, won bronze in 2016 and is currently the world’s top-ranked woman in the 100.

Richardson, who dropped out of the 200 to focus on the 100 at the U.S. Olympic Trials, could still win a medal if she’s included on the U.S. 400-meter relay team.

Her suspension ends three days before track and field events start at the 2020 Tokyo Games on July 30, but the positive test negates her Olympic qualification for the event.

“The rules are clear, but this is heartbreaking on many levels,” USADA CEO Travis T. Tygart said in a statement announcing Richardson’s suspension. “Hopefully, her acceptance of responsibility and apology will be an important example to us all that we can successfully overcome our regrettable decisions, despite the costly consequences of this one to her.”

Richardson tested over the limit of 180 ng/mL of THC on June 19, the day of the 100 semifinals and final during the Olympic Trials. The positive test for a banned substance means her Olympic qualifying result has been disqualified, according to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s release.

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was among those expressing dismay after the USADA announced Richardson’s suspension.

The USOPC will determine her eligibility to participate in the relay, which might be a longshot since she is no longer technically on the Olympic team.

Richardson is one of four U.S. athletes sanctioned for testing positive for cannabinoids this year and one of 35 the USADA has sanctioned in the past decade.

After accepting her suspension, Richardson tweeted a simple message, “I am human,” and appeared on NBC’s “Today” show Friday morning for an exclusive interview.

“Right now, I’m just putting all my time and energy into dealing with what I need to deal with to heal myself,” Richardson said.

She said it would be “a blessing” if the USOPC allowed her to run on the relay in Tokyo.

Richardson apologized to her fans, family, sponsors and “the haters too” while speaking with “Today” host Savannah Guthrie about her failed test.

“I greatly apologize if I let you guys down, and I did,” Richardson said, vowing to return to the Olympics in 2024 and win a gold medal. “... I’m 21. I’m very young. Unlike most, I have plenty of Games left to compete in.”

There has been a move both politically and within athletics to move away from punishing individuals and athletes for using marijuana.

Canada, the former Soviet republic of Georgia, Mexico, South Africa and Uruguay have legalized recreational use of marijuana, along with many U.S. states and municipalities.

Much of Europe and South America, along with Australia, have legalized medical marijuana and decriminalized its recreational use.

Missouri voters legalized medical marijuana in the state in 2018. Dispensaries started to open in October 2020 across the state.

The NHL, which is based in Canada, and several U.S. states that have legalized marijuana for medical and recreational purposes, tests players for the drug, but only requires treatment for players who have a high level. The league doesn’t suspend or fine players for positive THC tests.

Major League Baseball removed marijuana from its banned-substances list in December 2019, but players can still be disciplined for in-season use if they attend team functions while high.

The policy change had a bigger impact on minor-league players, who previously faced harsh suspensions while major league players were subject to fines.

The NFL relaxed its rules and removed suspension as a punishment for smoking weed under the 2020 Collective Bargaining Agreement.

The NBA suspended drug testing for marijuana during the 2020-21 season, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, but it remains to be seen what the league does moving forward.

Major League Soccer continues to test for marijuana, as does FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, though the latter views marijuana use as “not a doping problem, but a social problem.” According to a Sporting Kansas City spokesperson, the league did not change its drug-testing policy with the adoption of a new CBA in 2020.

The NCAA also tests for marijuana and schools can suspend players for positive THC tests, though even college sports' governing body has eased its stance in recent years.